Why Return to “Normal” When You Can Recover to a Winning Position?

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis was and remains extremely challenging. Unfortunately, the recovery will be even more complex. But there is good news for companies willing to take the right actions during this critical recovery phase: the rewards may prove transformative, propelling them into the ranks of true performance leaders.

For Our Clients

Macro Surveillance Platform

For more detail on the business implications of coronavirus from Bain’s Macro Trends Group, log on to the Macro Surveillance Platform. Learn more about the platform >

Our analysis of past recessions reveals that recoveries are “moments of truth,” critical inflection points that either position companies for a strong bounce-back and years of continued market share gains—or relegate them to a path of sluggish growth.

A majority of companies follow the latter course (see Figure 1). Often late to acknowledge a recession or other difficult situation, and playing from a defensive posture, they seek the least risky and most direct route back to precrisis normalcy, hoping to land on a reassuringly familiar perch where they can resume business as usual.

Figure 1

The global financial crisis revealed how critical the recovery period can be

The global financial crisis revealed how critical the recovery period can be

About 20% of companies are able to go the other way: Having anticipated the crisis, they are prepared to play offense during the upturn. They use recovery as an opportunity to test, learn and innovate; to reevaluate what customers want and how to provide it; to cut costs; and to make critical changes to how they are organized and how they work. No doubt it is a demanding task, requiring intense leadership focus and commitment. Nevertheless, the results speak for themselves: These companies outgrow their peers by nearly four times, and the separation is most pronounced during the recovery.

Rather than go back to the past, winners drive forward toward a new and different future—a future for which they quickly become purpose-built. What does it take to recover by looking forward and emerging from a crisis significantly stronger than ever? Companies we have worked with take a comprehensive and integrated approach that spans six distinct areas, starting with scenario planning, progressing through a number of strategic, operational model and cost choices, and culminating with new organizational capabilities and a clear vision of how to mobilize for success (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Assessing near- and longer-term scenarios

Charting a course into an unpredictable future is not easy, but scenario planning can provide a firm with a high level of confidence that it is prepared for whatever may come. This requires assessing potential developments and trends at the macro, industry and company levels.

At the macro level, and given our current world, scenarios should account for, among other possibilities, variations in Covid-19 progression, government stimulus programs and lockdown measures, and potential effects on unemployment and consumer confidence. Modeling these macro indicators is complex, in part because the implication of these factors will be asynchronous—there will be significant geographical difference in how the disease spreads, for example.

Sector-level scenario planning must account for both the direction and magnitude of the initial demand shock(s), as well as the shape of the recovery (see Figure 3), resulting in potentially very different demand profiles across products and regions. This level of planning should model competitors’ potential moves and their implications, especially as customer needs change and companies vie for share of wallet via new value propositions and profitability via new business models.

Figure 3

Demand recovery will vary by industry and geography but generally follow one of six archetypes

Demand recovery will vary by industry and geography but generally follow one of six archetypes

At the company level, scenario planning needs to map likely developments to a range of internal measures, including top- and bottom-line projections and the impact on cash flow and the balance sheet. In the end, management teams will need to understand a range of probable financial impacts.

  • What will your revenue and market share look like under various scenarios?
  • How do associated cost structures perform, including the full extent of Covid-19-related costs?
  • What can you expect regarding your cash position, particularly given the asynchronous timing of revenues and costs?

Given the scope of those considerations, it is easy to feel paralyzed by the complexity coupled with the lack of predictability. Our clients manage this by looking across possible outcomes to understand what actions they would take in any scenario. They then define the triggers that narrow the range of possible outcomes and link incremental actions to those triggers, creating a relevant and adaptable plan. One of the world’s largest beverage companies recently modeled the impact of Covid-19 across product segments, channels and ecosystem players and found that while the magnitude of the impact varied across scenarios, the winners (SKUs and channel partners) remained the same. This insight allowed the leadership team to make bold investments faster and more confidently than their competitors.

From scenarios to strategic planning

Scenario planning involves looking ahead. But strategy needs to do more than inform the future—it must also guide a company’s immediate priorities and direction. We find that a “today-forward, future-back” approach to strategy development is a highly effective way to achieve immediate short-term wins during the recovery and position a company for long-term leadership, particularly in tumultuous times.

In today’s environment, the today-forward approach involves a systematic review of the experiments that Covid-19 provoked and the lessons learned from them. Many companies have eliminated work (and meetings!) that they do not want to bring back. In scrambling to meet customers’ needs, companies have learned how to streamline processes and decisions and get to market faster and at a lower cost. To keep up with demand and amplify production, many firms were forced to focus on their highest performing SKUs, which enabled the company to increase manufacturing capacity, simplify distribution and still meet customer needs. Covid-19 has refocused companies on the “need to have” and has stopped many of the “nice to have” motions that were a product of habit and history.

The future-back approach involves a structured analysis of where an industry is likely to be in two, five and ten years. To make sure the insights are achievable, companies focus on addressing some very basic questions.

  • How will the needs of our customers change, often leading to a resegmentation of the market?
  • How will our products and services evolve to meet those evolving needs?
  • What capabilities and operating models will it take to win in the new world? 

Deciding where to place critical bets on the future depends in part on understanding the trends that will define it. Every company’s priority list has almost certainly changed, perhaps profoundly, as e-commerce has become a norm; digital selling has emerged as a powerful new option; and resiliency, flexibility, traceability and sustainability have become major concerns in global supply chains. Companies are also digging in to understand which elements of their cost structures need to become more variable, how to use new technologies and automation to improve the customer experience and reduce costs, and how to transition to a more Agile operating model.

These and other trends will affect a company’s priorities, positioning and long-term strategy. We know that most companies evaluate their portfolios along two dimensions (see Figure 4): Are the market fundamentals attractive? And, what is the company’s ability to win? Covid-19 has reshaped the answers to both of these questions for many businesses, triggering a necessary reevaluation of portfolios and M&A strategy.

Figure 4

Companies need to reevaluate their portfolios to understand the impact of Covid-19 for each business unit

Companies need to reevaluate their portfolios to understand the impact of Covid-19 for each business unit

As executive teams evaluate relevant trends and their impact on competitive position and strategy, they need to address a number of related questions.

  • Are you clear on how industry trends will affect your company in a post-Covid-19 world?
  • What are your must-deliver priorities through the recovery period?
  • Is there an opportunity to accelerate broader transformation efforts as you recover?
  • What are the long-term investments you need to secure?

Rethinking customer needs—and how to meet them

Customer and consumer expectations and demands are undoubtedly changing, prompting leading companies to adapt their operating models. For example, in response to Covid-19, many B2C companies quickly added delivery options and enhanced the emphasis on safety, health and cleanliness. More profoundly, despite the difficulty of predicting how customer behaviors and preferences will evolve over time, the crisis has made one thing undeniably clear: the future is digital.

Many of these B2C companies are zero-basing marketing spending and resources across segments and channels, and using test-and-learn programs to “sense” and stimulate demand and reveal the right growth strategies. Most have accelerated their digitalization path through an aggressive focus on e-commerce, digitalized customer episodes, and automated customer service and support.

Similar trends are emerging in the B2B world. Again, the recovery presents an opportunity to gain—or lose—significant market share depending on how effectively companies respond to very hard-to-predict customer demand. The winners tend to focus on the most strategic customers, tune their value propositions for maximum relevance, facilitate real-time intelligence from the field to revise forecasts, and operate “win rooms” to secure the near-term revenue line and increase the speed and metabolism of the salesforce.

There is also a clear move toward virtual selling in B2B, which has proven highly (and surprisingly) successful, upending traditional notions about the importance of face-to-face meetings. Some companies have made the pivot to virtual selling far more effectively than others, but laggards should hesitate no longer, given that this appears to be an enduring legacy of Covid-19. A study by Bain and Dynata revealed that since the Covid-19 outbreak, approximately 90% of sales interactions with buyers have been conducted virtually, and 80% of buyers and sellers believe this trend will endure. Many companies are resetting their commercial models and realigning capacity, using digital and inside sales to reduce costs and boost effectiveness.

Shoring up the value chain

Accurately sensing customer demand and transforming the commercial model to meet and stimulate it are just two of the many actions that need to be built into recovery strategies. As companies restart and rescale their operations, they will also encounter a variety of risks and potential points of failure. A smart recovery plan can mitigate these. A few examples:

  • Operations planning will be highly complex as pent-up (or overserved) demand and evolving customer needs yield highly unreliable demand signals, a challenge made more complex by customers’ uneven restart schedules. Companies must proactively prioritize customers and SKUs, track finished goods inventory in real time and map it against forecasted and real orders, and flex as needed in response to demand uncertainties. For example, as Covid-19 affected its distribution, one of the world’s leading B2B plastics companies prioritized its customer base to ensure that the most important customers were served first, but also maintained production levels as a backstop to pent-up demand. Today it is enjoying an industry-leading bounce-back and gaining share.
  • Vendor relationships can also be hampered by uneven restart schedules, component or service availability issues, and vendors’ financial pressures. These hurdles can be mitigated through systems that provide increased visibility and traceability from origin to production line, and by better understanding global category capacity, identifying single points of failure, and developing expedited processes for qualifying substitutes and modifying specifications when necessary. A Chinese screen manufacturer navigated its recovery by prioritizing suppliers based on material importance and the risk of shortages, connecting daily with the leaders of those suppliers to understand capacity vs. demand, and funding vendors to increase capacity as appropriate. These investments paid off; the company is now gaining share by having preferential access to inputs.
  • Certain value chain risks will be internal, including a number of pandemic-related employee concerns that may limit the availability of personnel at the work sites. Efforts to increase flexibility across work groups, production lines and logistics configurations, combined with proactive capacity reallocations and worker training/recertification, can infuse a new level of resilience, which is certain to be a lasting legacy from Covid-19.

Across the entire value chain (see Figure 5), many opportunities exist to embed new levels of resiliency. One of the key lessons of Covid-19 is that we have built highly efficient—but also highly brittle—global supply chains. Digital tools are making real-time visibility and traceability a reality, including a better understanding of potential failure points. Whatever new shocks the future may bring, organizations can now design supply chains to be more flexible and less vulnerable than ever before.

Figure 5

The cost imperative

For many companies, the recovery will exacerbate liquidity challenges as the costs of restarting or ramping up operations come online ahead of revenues. Successful companies will navigate these challenges while also preparing for the new world of increased margin pressures. To achieve economic resilience on par with the new emphasis on operational resilience, companies will need to run leaner and convert more costs to a variable model. That means that leaders will have to look across many different functions, from procurement and supply chain to sales and marketing, service and support, and others, to find savings and to shift from fixed costs.

Cost transformation will need to be informed by each company’s strategy, particularly by the future-back trends that will define winning models. The clean-sheet approach provided by zero-based redesign can help companies define and achieve the optimal cost structure, guiding key decisions about where they must be best in cost, and where they should invest to match capabilities to strategic goals. A zero-based approach can also help reduce complexity and chart the most effective path toward increased automation.

Rethinking how work gets done

It is tempting to focus most of recovery efforts on how to get employees back to the work site, but companies need to avoid a reverse migration to the old ways of working. Again, this crisis has taught us the benefits of alternative approaches in the deployment of talent, time and energy. Leaders should carefully assess what work should be colocated vs. what can be done remotely, what work can and should be automated, what can be done more efficiently (or eliminated), and how the entire organization can become more Agile.

Looking forward, there is no denying that every element of this recovery will rely on technology, from apps for testing and tracing to expansion of online and omnichannel sales to newly automated processes to real-time supplier visibility. Many companies accomplished more items on their digital agendas in the first month of the epidemic than they normally accomplish in years. Digital projects that were languishing in pilot purgatory were revived and quickly scaled across the entire organization. The challenge facing technology leaders (and CEOs) in the recovery is how to reset their technology priorities and operating model to maintain this pace of progress while operating with tight budgets.

Of course, technology is not the only item on the new leadership agenda. Companies that want to join the elite ranks of those that use a recovery to capture significant market share will also need to prepare for critical transformation efforts, which will require:

  • aligning the senior team on a complex and often conflicting set of priorities;
  • making tough decisions about which change initiatives to prioritize, and dynamically adjusting as needed;
  • increasing the organization’s metabolism, by mobilizing distributed teams to test, adapt and scale new solutions; and
  • building the key capabilities while boosting accountability and calibrating the pace of change to the organization’s ability to absorb it.

Since leaders do not operate in a vacuum, it will be critically important to empower the front line, and, where applicable, work with unions and other stakeholders to provide the communication, training and stress-level monitoring to get everyone safely and productively back to work and ready to embrace and build new processes and priorities.

These are no doubt challenging times, and this will not change soon. With so many variables affecting the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic, from transmission rates to economic impact to political and regulatory reactions, executives need to prepare for the long haul.

This makes it all the more important to act now to seize the opportunities that Covid-19 provides: to leapfrog competitors by creating more resilient operations; deeper, digital customer relationships; and a refined set of strategic priorities tuned for a new world. By thinking through the scenarios that detail the impact of the epidemic on their company, leaders can be better prepared to navigate the challenges and prepare their organizations to permanently embed the positive changes inspired by the pandemic. Leaders who can peer through this current veil of uncertainty and use the approaches outlined above to guide a focused and committed recovery will transform their organization and turn this crisis into an opportunity.

Related Insights


The global Covid-19 pandemic has extracted a terrible human toll and spurred sweeping changes in the world economy. Across industries, executives have begun reassessing their strategies and repositioning their companies to thrive now and in the world beyond coronavirus.


Ready to talk?

We work with ambitious leaders who want to define the future, not hide from it. Together, we achieve extraordinary outcomes.